"I am trying to do 'something different' -- in a way reality -- what the imbeciles call 'impressionism' is a term which is as poorly used as possible, particularly by art critics."
The French musical Impressionistic movement was
led by Claude Debussy. Although he disclaimed all notions that his
own works were impressionistic in nature, and he even disliked
impressionistic art, the scholars of the day deemed his work the
measure of impressionism in France. And even after a century of
debate, impressionism will always be associated with Claude
Debussy. Impressionism began in Paris in the 1870's and slowly
spread to music and literature. Claude Debussy displayed his
impressionism through, shifty sounds, wavering tones, and what the
poet Verlaine described as, "harmoniously dissonant chords."
Nonetheless his music was accepted by the people of the time, and
have managed to still intrigue the ears of present-day listeners
with perhaps the most radical of structures and harmonies.
Debussy was born into a family of small-time farm workers and artisans in a suburb of Paris known as St. Germain-en-Laye. He was born on August 22nd, 1862 and named Achille Claude Debussy. Debussy's family was extremely poor. Two of the four children lived with a wealthy aunt. His father did not even provide formal schooling for Claude Debussy and wished for him to become a sailor. Unfortunately for Debussy's father, Debussy took an interest to music. His aunt paid for a few lessons on the piano and finally moved Debussy up to formal instruction with a teacher who had studied with Fréderic Chopin.
Debussy quickly made progress with his new teacher. At the age of eleven he was accepted into the Paris Conservatory as a pianist. He spent the next ten years at the conservatory baffling the instructors with his absurd ideas, but intriguing them with his new methods. Many of his teachers said his music was theoretically absurd, but he simply replied, "There is no theory. You merely have to listen. Pleasure is law." Nonetheless, he studied many years under traditional technique for he wished to add to his accolades the highest honor, the Prix de Rome.
He eventually came to play for the patroness of Peter I. Tchaikovsky, Nadezha von Meck. Traveling with the elegant family was a pleasant change from the slums in which he lived. During this time he molded under the influence of Russian composers, such as Alexandr Borodin and Modest Mussorgsky.
In 1884, after numerous compositions, Debussy finally won the Prix de Rome, with an elegant piece called The Prodigal Son. For the next three years, as a prize, he stayed in Rome, which he disliked from the very beginning. Upon his return to Paris, where he would remain for the rest of his life, he began a stretch of intensive compositions that would redefine music and intrigue the audience for a very long time.
His first piece of this stretch would be known as The Blessed Maiden. Its restless modulations, wandering rhythms and boisterous air hinted that he was groping toward a new style. He began looking to poetry and art for inspiration in his compositions. He even looked to fellow composer, Richard Wagner. Although on the exterior, Debussy called Wagner "the old poisoner," he clearly influenced a few of Debussy's early 1890's pieces. Evidence of this influence can be seen in Debussy's opera Pelleas et Melisande. From 1887 to 1895, Debussy's music would revolutionize the music of the age much in the same way Beethoven and Wagner did.
By 1905, Debussy was famous throughout Europe and the rest of
the world. He had married twice. He left a girl he called Gaby for
Rosalie Texier. Supposedly, there was a passionate match between
him and the later woman. But, as all love fades, soon this
relationship wore thin and he soon eloped with Emma Bardac. He
remained with this woman until he died.
He wrote many chamber pieces but only a few for string
instruments. His numerous sonatas are not excellent but they are
definitely distinctive. His two string quartets, particularly
String Quartet no. 1,
are always among the repertoire of any professional ensemble,
although one may not hear it being played during a reception or
wedding. The music is definitely different, and in some ways
superb. Another piece of recognition is his Children's Corner Suite
which was dedicated to his only daughter.
His Famous Compositions
All of his pieces were instrumental in the development of
classical music through this age. The Afternoon of the Faun is his
orchestral pinnacle. The opening flute solo gives one a taste for
the rest of the piece. Other notable orchestral pieces include La
Mer, Images, and Nocturne. His string quartets are equally
appealing and its technical difficulty is astonishing. His opera,
Pelleas et Melisande is his most famous and possibly only opera.
And his entourage of piano music is not only playful but
exemplifies his own unique style.
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